Sunday, May 4, 2014

Can a Public Entity Be Liable for Personal Injuries suffered as a Result of a Dangerous Condition of Public Property?

The question of whether a public entity can be liable for personal injury suffered by someone as a result of a dangerous condition of public property was discussed recently by the California Court of Appeal in the published case entitled Martinez v. County of Ventura (2014) 225 Cal. App. 4th 364, in an opinion filed on April 8, 2014. 

Plaintiff Martinez and his wife sued the County for serious personal injuries he suffered when his motorcycle hit an asphalt berm next to a raised drain on the shoulder of a County-owned road.  Government Code § 835 says that a public entity is liable for reasonably foreseeable personal injuries that are caused by a dangerous condition on its property. 
At trial, the jury found that the County’s drain system was a dangerous condition of public property that caused plaintiff’s injuries. However, because of the “design immunity” defense raised by the County, the County won the case.  The Plaintiffs appealed.

The design immunity defense is found in Government Code § 830.6. This code section says that a public entity is not liable for a dangerous condition on its property when the personal injury is caused by discretionary approval of a construction plan or design prior to construction, and there is substantial evidence that the construction plan or design was reasonable.

The appeal focused on the “discretionary approval” aspect of the design immunity defense.  For the design immunity defense to apply, the public entity must be able to show that the construction plan or design was approved by the public entity in advance of the construction.  The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision in favor of the County because there was no evidence at trial that the County exercised its discretion to approve the drain system. At the trial, the County did not introduce any evidence of a design or a plan for the drain system.  The evidence at trial showed that “the maintenance workers simply built and installed the drains in the field as they saw the need for them.” The Court of Appeal stated: “Because the County presented no evidence of any design, there was no evidence of a design that anyone with authority to approve it could approve.”  The Court of Appeal also agreed with the Plaintiffs' contention that “there was no evidence that any design was approved in advance of construction by someone exercising discretionary authority to give such approval on behalf of the County.” 
The Court of Appeal confirmed that “a public entity seeking design immunity must establish the discretionary approval element of the defense, even if the project is a maintenance project for which formal plans are not customarily prepared.”